U.S. Travel says the summer will be a stress test for aviation

The U.S. Travel Association is calling on Congress to get ahead of another potential summer of flying fiascos with investment in air traffic control technology and staffing, programs to increase the supply of pilots and mechanics, and grants for airport improvement. 

“The summer travel season will be a stress test and, unfortunately, a likely wake-up call for many policymakers,” U.S. Travel CEO Geoff Freeman said during a media briefing on Wednesday. 

Freeman said that years of underinvestment in the FAA led to the travel meltdowns of the past year, with an air travel system that is struggling to meet growing demand. And this summer will test the system again: according to a new U.S. Travel survey from Ipsos, 53% of all Americans and 81% of leisure travelers plan to travel in the next six months. 

The FAA recently asked airlines to reduce service this summer in New York, Newark and Washington due to a lack of air traffic controller staffing. The FAA granted flexibility on slot usage requirements at those congested airports to facilitate a reduction in flights, and the airlines responded by trimming their schedules.

“Americans are paying the price of years of chronic underinvestment — in technology and staffing — by the federal government in our nation’s air travel system,” Freeman said. “Air travelers are right to be frustrated and to demand more from Washington.” 

Freeman cited a lack of FAA funding overall, including for sufficient air traffic control staffing, and also cautioned that lengthy wait times for arriving passengers at U.S. customs checkpoints, a result of understaffing by Customs and Border Protection, is a growing concern and compounding the full recovery of international inbound travel to the U.S.

“That international visitor is absolutely critical because they tend to stay longer and spend more, and that is where we’re seeing that the biggest weakness right now,” Freeman said. “And it’s something we need to account for quickly and to be prepared for.”

While leisure travel demand is strong now, Freeman said, inefficiencies in the system could keep them from traveling long-term: The survey found that more than half of Americans (52%) say they would travel more for leisure in the next six months if the travel experience was not as much of a hassle. 

When asked what Congress should prioritize in FAA reauthorization, a majority of recent air travelers (55%) want Congress to prioritize improvements to the air travel experience by addressing hassles such as reducing flight delays and cancellations (19%), offering more direct flights by addressing the pilot shortage (21%) or reducing congestion in airports (15%).

Freeman said that travelers this summer should be patient, knowing “the system is going to be stretched,” but that they also have the right to be impatient. 

“We should be impatient right now with Congress. We should be impatient with FAA. We should be impatient with where these investments are being made, and how seriously we’re taking the need to build a world-class air travel system,” Freeman said. “These problems didn’t come out of thin air. These problems have come out of years and years of underinvestment. … We can solve these problems, we can give people a better experience. And I think the travelers should demand a better experience.”

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